In 1943, at the height of World War II, a Pennsylvania engineer named Richard James was working in his home laboratory on an obscure but crucial military issue. Because navy ships often navigated through rough seas, they needed elaborate measures to stabilize onboard instruments. James attempted to solve this problem by anchoring these instruments to a system of sensitive springs that would react to the turbulence while keeping the instruments level.
While at work one day, James accidentally dropped one of his springs and watched it smoothly step from his shelf to a stack of books to a tabletop and on down to the floor, where it coiled back into a perfect cylinder. James’s thoughts immediately shifted from the war effort to the toy store. He shared the idea with his wife, Betty, and she came up with a name for the gizmo: the Slinky.
A Slinky is manufactured by coiling sixty-seven feet of steel wire, a process that James’s first machines could complete in almost ten seconds. With the exception of smoothing the sharp ends, the toy hasn’t changed since the first models were sold in 1945. James couldn’t convince any toy sellers to purchase his idea, so he manufactured and sold Slinkys himself, beginning with a sale of 400 units to the Gimbles department store. James died in 1974, but by 1995, James Industries had sold more that an quarter-billion Slinkys.
In addition to being toys, Slinky have often served educational purposes, expecially to demonstrate the properties of waves in seismology, the study of earthquakes. NASA even used the toy for experiments aboard the space shuttle – beinging the Slinky back full circle to its scientific origins.
In 1960, James left his company and family and joined a Bolivian religious cult.